Momentous Collapses in Campaign History

Button: Harry Truman holds up 'Dewey Defeats Truman' newspaper headline.

Thomas Dewey was a shoo-in for 1948. But President Truman wasn't buying it. hide caption

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'I'm a Metz Fan' button

Speaking of the Mets, their improbable 1969 World Series victory apparently inspired Howard Metzenbaum during his Ohio Senate campaign a year later. hide caption

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Mike Gravel button

The Alaska Democrat came to the Senate — and departed from it — thanks to a Gruening. hide caption

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Bob Bauman button

Twenty-seven years ago today, the pro-family Maryland conservative was caught in a sex scandal with a teenage boy. hide caption

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I'm not a Mets fan, but ya gotta feel for those who are. Their team, as everyone now knows, had a seven-game lead in the National League East with 17 games to play, and they blew it. They will be watching the playoffs on TV this year.

I say this with no delight. It is painful to watch a team filled with great talent coast in first place for most of the season then suddenly fall apart. The anguish on fans' faces after the team's final, bitter defeat was plastered on the front page of newspapers all across the country. The Mets' self-destruction will be remembered for a long time, similar to what the Philadelphia Phillies — the team that beat out the Mets this year — went through during their incredible collapse of 1964 (6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play). And, as a casual follower of the Yankees — which, for an assortment of reasons, I have pretty much avoided talking about this season — I am forced to acknowledge the reality of their monumental collapses; witness their three-games-to-none lead over that team from New England before losing four straight in 2004, or their ninth-inning lead in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series in Arizona with Mariano Rivera on the mound. I still haven't recovered from either one.

As I've long argued on these pages (wait, are there pages in Web columns?), there is a tremendous similarity between baseball and politics — the lore, the passion, the history, the trivia, the memories. When you think 1960, you get Kennedy and Nixon and Mazeroski. 1988? It's Bush and the flag, Dukakis in the tank, and some fellow named Kirk Gibson limping around the bases. Baseball is even better for the likes of Hillary Clinton, who somehow has the amazing capacity to root for two different teams during the same game (alternating innings, of course).

So if we are going to reminisce about momentous collapses in baseball history, why not do the same with campaigns? If baseball and campaigns are the two things that make us tick, then let's extend this exercise from the diamond to the political arena. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most famous collapses in political history. (Hey kids, don't hesitate to send in those that we forgot!)

Thomas Dewey (R), President, 1948: The stars were clearly aligned against Harry Truman, who became president upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and who often seemed an insufficient and ill-prepared successor to FDR. In addition to having a Republican Congress nipping at his heels, his own Democratic base was fractured: From the right came the presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond, and from the left there was Henry Wallace. New York Gov. Dewey, the GOP nominee, was so confident of victory that he toured the country giving bland speeches and offering vague promises. For his part, the underdog Truman fought like "hell" from the moment he was nominated, blasting the "do nothing" Congress and reminding voters about the benefits of the New Deal. The Chicago Tribune front page to the contrary, the election wasn't that close.

George Allen (R), Virginia Senate, 2006: It's not that this election was ever a slam-dunk for Allen; Democrats from the outset felt that Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, was a competitive candidate. But there's no question that Allen was already looking past his re-election bid and toward the 2008 presidential contest, where some wags listed him as the Republican front-runner. That all fell apart when a cell phone camera recorded Allen making disparaging remarks about a Webb supporter during an Allen rally, a supporter who happened to be an Indian-American. Allen's word choice to describe the supporter — "macaca" — opened up the senator to charges of racial insensitivity at best, a history of bigotry at worst. Allen never recovered, and though the final margin was narrow, it gave the Democrats control of the Senate.

George H.W. Bush (R), President, 1992: By the time the general election was approaching, there was little doubt that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was going to defeat the president. But it's worth a reminder that, with the satisfactory conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, Bush's polling numbers were approaching 90 percent, and most leading Democrats decided to skip the '92 race. One more reason why citing polls well in advance of the election is ludicrous.

Ed Muskie (D), presidential primaries, 1972: Muskie, the senator from Maine who ran an impressive race for vice president on the 1968 losing Democratic ticket, was the odds-on favorite for the '72 nomination. His campaign buttons said it all: "President Muskie: Don't You Feel Better Already?" But though Muskie's support was wide, it was not deep, and he certainly didn't arouse the passion that some of his rivals, notably Vietnam War foe George McGovern, did. When Muskie won New Hampshire with a less than overwhelming margin — after polls had suggested a landslide — the inevitability of a Muskie nomination was over.

HONORABLE MENTION: Over the years, I've gotten a handful of questions asking which Senate results most surprised me. Here are a dozen such races, sorted alphabetically by state. None, as you can see, go back terribly far. And not every one is a perfect match for my "momentous collapse" theme. Still, it's a fun exercise. And again, I welcome additions to the list:

Floyd Haskell (D) over Gordon Allott (R), Colorado, 1972; Joe Biden (D) over J. Caleb Boggs (R), Delaware, 1972; Lawton Chiles (D), Democratic primary, Florida, 1970; Mack Mattingly (R) over Herman Talmadge (D), Georgia, 1980; Carol Moseley Braun (D), Democratic primary, Illinois, 1992; Dick Clark (D) over Jack Miller (R), Iowa, 1972; Mitch McConnell (R) over Walter Huddleston (D), Kentucky, 1984; Conrad Burns (R) over John Melcher (D), Montana, 1988; Gordon Humphrey (R) over Thomas McIntyre (D), New Hampshire, 1978; Jeffrey Bell over Clifford Case, New Jersey Republican primary, 1978; John East (R) over Robert Morgan (D), North Carolina, 1980; and Bill Scott (R) over William Spong (D), Virginia, 1972.

Now, time to play ball with questions from you:

Q: You always say that Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is one of six Republicans in the House who voted in 2002 against going to war in Iraq. Who were the other five? — Allison Edwards, Paris

A: The October 2002 vote in the House was 296-133. A majority of Democrats voted against it. Republicans favored it 215-6. The other five: John Hostettler (IN), Jim Leach (IA), Connie Morella (MD) and Jimmy Duncan (TN). Only Duncan and Paul remain in the House.

Q: Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel (D) has been out of office since he was defeated for renomination in 1980. Why did he lose the primary? — David Kuhn, Bethesda, Md.

A: Gravel, whose long-shot, anti-establishment presidential bid is punctuated by attacks on his own party and fellow White House hopefuls, was a similar maverick during his two terms as senator. In 1968, he toppled Sen. Ernest Gruening in the Democratic primary, calling the 81-year-old Gruening "out of touch" with voters and faulting the senator — one of only two to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — for being more concerned with foreign affairs than with issues affecting Alaska.

It was not lost on anyone that Gravel, seeking a third term in 1980, wound up facing a primary challenge from Gruening's grandson, Clark Gruening, a former state legislator. The younger Gruening complained that Gravel's independence and abrasiveness made him an ineffective figure to fight for the state's economic interests. Gravel's attempt to read the Pentagon Papers on the Senate floor in 1971 and his decision to nominate himself for vice president the following year added to the perception that he was a bit, um, different. But what ultimately ended Gravel's Senate tenure was his apparent mishandling of the Alaska lands bill, which had to do with the federal government's role in restricting development on millions of acres of land. He lost the primary decisively to Gruening, who went on to lose to the Republican candidate in November.

ELECTORAL COLLEGE DROPOUTS: Well, it looks like the ballot effort in California to apportion the state's 55 electoral votes by congressional district may be falling apart (see last week's column). The leader of the campaign, Thomas Hiltachk, quit last week over the group's acceptance of a large contribution from an organization that refused to reveal the source of the money. There are conflicting reports as to whether the effort will survive.

Speaking of last week's column, several readers pointed out that the 2004 attempt to change the way electoral votes are allocated in Colorado was not like the one proposed this year in California. The Colorado effort would have proportionally divided the electoral votes according to the statewide popular vote, not by congressional district. Many more readers agreed with my conclusion that for it to be fair, every state — not just a select few — would have to change the way electoral votes are distributed. For the record, Randy Richardson of Grand Junction, Colo., writes, "The Constitution, it seems to me, is pretty clear that electoral votes will be assigned by each state 'in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct.' There is no provision for popular referenda. A ballot initiative such as the one in California, if it passes, must be struck down as unconstitutional, regardless of what we may think of its merits."

Paul Mulshine, a political columnist at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, says, "I get tired of hearing from well-meaning readers who want to go to a national popular vote. This can't happen, of course, because the small states would be idiotic to go along with such an amendment. However, a district-by-district system would accomplish much the same thing, so I wonder why more of these characters aren't pushing it. Also it might have the effect of encouraging state pols to draw more competitive districts in the hopes of picking up an electoral vote or two. (And, of course, as a journalist here in solidly blue Jersey, I sure wish the candidates would show up every four years.)"

One advocate of the popular vote method is the group FairVote, which offers a detailed explanation of why it feels that it's a far superior system compared with the congressional district plan now used in Maine and Nebraska and attempted in California.

Comparing the two systems — direct popular vote and electoral vote by congressional district — Nicholas Ohh of London notes that under the former plan, Democrats Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Al Gore in 2000 would have become president, while under the latter plan, Richard Nixon would have "clearly beaten" John Kennedy in 1960, the 1976 election would have been thrown into the House, and George W. Bush "would not have needed the five-plus votes from the Supreme Court to claim the presidency in 2000."

ON THE CALENDAR:

Oct. 4 — Memphis mayoral election. Incumbent Willie Herenton, who is black, is being challenged by City Councilmember Carol Chumney, who is white. Also, the New York Yankees begin their quest for their 27th World Series title.

Oct. 9 — Republican presidential debate in Dearborn, Mich. (sponsored by CNBC/MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal).

Oct. 14 — Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. (ABC News/Manchester Union Leader).

Oct. 16 — Special election in Massachusetts' 5th District to succeed Marty Meehan (D), who resigned.

WE'RE ON THE AIR EVERY WEDNESDAY: Reading this column is bad enough; you can also hear a "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, usually at 2:40 p.m. ET (sometimes, if warranted, we start at 2 p.m.; you never know in this wacky business). If your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web. This week: the presidential money wars, the threat of a conservative bolt if Giuliani is nominated, and Newt Gingrich deciding to remain as chairman of the group American Solutions rather than be the leader of the Free World.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: Rep. Bob Bauman (R-MD), a leading pro-family conservative, pleads not guilty to a misdemeanor charge that he committed a sex act with a 16-year-old boy in Washington, D.C., back in March. The married Bauman — heavily favored to win re-election — says the incident stemmed from his "acute alcoholism" (Oct. 3, 1980). The following month, Bauman loses his seat to Democrat Roy Dyson.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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